Replaying Final Fantasy VII proved to be such an enjoyable and rewarding experience that revisiting Final Fantasy IX was inevitable.
This was another piece of my juvenalia that made a huge impression upon my imagination as I was growing up.
Final Fantasy IX returns to the series’ roots, with a more medieval flavour, in contrast to VII and VIII’s techno/industrial worlds. This is certainly a welcome choice, as any complaints that I have for this game certainly don’t lie in the aesthetics or setting. Actually, that is this game’s real strength; the sumptious backdrops, the environments teeming with life and a world map in which mist powered airships soar above really adds depth.
I remember wandering for hours through Lindblum, Alexandria and Treno, generally just enjoying the ambience of their excellently realised fantasy settings. Their is a vein of Pratchett-esque comedy that runs through the game – clanking knights, incompetent nobles and all manner of silliness. Charming though this may be, it jars whenever a serious plot point is made.
Perhaps the only real sense of pathos is when Vivi discovers his purpose and his own obsolescence a la Blade Runner. This is a shame, as the breadth of imagination and craftsmanship is rather undermined with bad story-telling and a rather irritating protagonist. I’m not sure if this because the game is pitched at a younger audience or whether it is simply hard to reconcile when compared to its prequels.
Final Fantasy IX is rather hollow. The archetypes that one expects in a Final Fantasy game are the sad echoes of earlier characters: Kuja is a diluted Sephiroth, entirely drained of menace and intrigue. In fact his New Romantic dress sense is so bold as to border on the ridiculous. Zidane is more interested in cringe-inducing advances upon any female he meets and his origin story does nothing to drum up depth or even sympathy – he is a sorry echo of the infinitely superior Cloud or Squall.
It is only Vivi, the living weapon (a kind of Replicant) that really inspires. This diminutive mage is both humble and potent upon the battle field. Steiner, the Falstaffian leader of a troupe of foolish knights, has an interesting arc and becomes the chivalric archetype through serving others rather than an autocratic regime. Freya, the love-sick warrior, also holds interest, reminding me somewhat of Brienne of Tarth.
Worst of all is the feeling that this game is on rails. The success (or not) of any choice you are called upon to make is typically down to luck or whether or not you have your walkthrough handy, as opposed to requiring any degree of skill; for example, do you ask Mog, Mogwan or Mogki to go fishing? The hell if I know! Add to this the slogs through mediocre dialogue and Active Time Events – nebulous elements of story that grind an already ponderous game to a halt.
The battles themselves are well-executed and far more challenging than this game’s predecessors – better to have a Phoenix Downs and Potions at the ready. Unfortunately, this game’s limit breaks (known as ‘Trance’) are bloody useless and so infrequent that you will seldom get the chance to use them at opportune moments. That said, this shouldn’t detract from what is otherwise an excellent battle system. Each character in combat is very distinct, making strategy a key component, as they will be forced to support one another to take down foes.
A final gripe is the music. Fantastic though it may be, each score – with a few notable exceptions – is comprised of a few catchy bars, which soon become repetitive. Spending too much time in one place can feel like a kind of purgatory, especially when combined with an overdrawn exchange of expository dialogue.
Despite these drawbacks, Final Fantasy IX is still a joy to play and it is only the strength of its predecessors that makes this criticism possible. On balance, it is a wonderful adventure, but not one that will stay with you forever.